Monday, September 13, 2010

The Primal Scrum

What is your primal reason for writing about a particular person, place, situation, or thing?

You begin the day liking the notion that the answer to your most rhetorical question, a sort of literary softball, is an index of your passionate concern.  You write about a person, a place, a situation, a thing because you care about it (them).  By most accounting, this is a proper, successful answer.  But it leaves you wanting.  How lovely in the extreme, or as Jake Barnes put it in another context, isn't it pretty to think you'd be in a steady atmosphere where it were possible to write only about the things that mattered to you.  No such luck.  Even the remarkable arbiter of such focus and concern, Gustave Flaubert, came to his desk some mornings convinced the previous day's work was lackluster.

Some mornings, you lurch to your writing venue, whether at home or in some coffee house, and your medium, whether your MacBook or a pen and note pad, clutching a coffee which you hope will open various portals, perhaps even chakras within, allowing the necessary traffic from emotions to intellect and assorted response mechanisms.  Through one stratagem or another, you literally have to write your way into caring, and you have to care enough so that when you reread it, the narrative voice you hear is not the voice of some Tea Bag politician, chanting the mantras of the deranged and deluded.  There are degrees of caring that produce a narrative with a purring rumble.  This is a nice, maintainable intensity, the sort that takes you without question through the narrative voices cast forth by the man and women whose work you admire and respect and wish to have your own work shelved with in public and private libraries.

The years of editing and teaching have impressed upon you how often the merest word will cause the purring narration to cough, possibly even to a stop.  If you care at all about your people and your theme, it becomes even more easy to let a sentence or two slip through the battlements on revision, sneaking through like commandos on a midnight raid, watch caps pulled down over their faces, their eye sockets ringed with carbon black so as to avoid detection.  Any simple word can and should sound the alarm, whether it is the ha, gotcha alarm or the alarm of excess or the worst alarm of all, the one of pretension.  They all mean the same thing in the end:  You cared too much or too little.  You were too exuberant or you rushed to be the first to finish.

You wouldn't do it if you didn't care; this is true enough.  But some days, you care more than others and when you find yourself recognizing this fact, how easy is it to try to plump up the enthusiasm with an adjective or two or perhaps some word you know will send potential readers running to their dictionaries, only to return to their reading with a fine sense of what a wonderful vocabulary you have in order to have constructed such a remarkable and intimidating sentence.

It does not and should not work that way, and you would think by now that you would understand this.  And you would hope that you do.

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